The Canarsee Indian tribe were the first inhabitants of what is now Gowanus. In 1636, Jacob Van Corlaer, an official in the Dutch colonial administration, made the first land purchase from Gowane, the chief of the Canarsee Indians. The Gowanus Canal was originally the Gowanus Creek, a tidal creek surrounded by wetlands.
Gowanus and the surrounding area were pivotal during the Revolutionary War. On August 27, 1776, the British army captured the Old Stone House, built circa 1700. Maryland soldiers attacked the British army and suffered great losses which allowed General Washington to escape across the Gowanus Creek and East River.
By the mid 19th century, the City of Brooklyn was the third largest, and fastest growing city in America. Its growth was largely a result of the creek which had become integrated into its economic urban fabric. As residential construction increased property values along the creek, the need for greater navigability was proposed. Initial construction on the Gowanus Canal began in 1853.
The population of Brooklyn more than doubled between 1855 and 1880 from 205,250 to 566,663 inhabitants (which is when we believe our house was built). By 1880, 180,000 residents were foreign-born and many settled near the waterfronts, where work was available. The surrounding neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens were built with building material that was barged directly into the area along the canal.
At the turn of the 20th century, industry exploded along the canal. By 1920, 6 million tons of cargo traveled through the canal, making it one of the busiest and most polluted in the United States. Although the canal was a success as a navigable waterway, the tidal waters did not adequately move water through the canal. Population increases and industry development created sewage system problems for the canal soon after it was completed. Although the canal was designed to flush the sewage out with the tide, it never worked as it was intended.
In 2009, the EPA proposed that the canal be listed as a Superfund cleanup site. The city opposed the Superfund listing and offered to produce a Gowanus cleanup plan that would provide the same cleanup as the Superfund, but with a promise to accomplish it faster. The city stated that it could now achieve a faster cleanup than EPA because the city would fund the cleanup through taxpayer dollars from the state and city levels, while the EPA would seek its funding from the polluters. In 2010, the EPA announced that it had placed the Gowanus Canal on its Superfund National Priorities List. The cleanup itself isn’t expected to begin for a few years. As with most government agencies, there are still a lot of funding hurdles before work can begin.